MIAMI (AP) — LeBron James looked at the crowd, knowing he had just a few moments left on the court for the season.
He waved his arms to them. They roared back. Moments later, he was atop the stage at center court, wearing a champions' hat and T-shirt, and waving a champions' towel.
He smiled. He danced.
For the first time in nine years, he enjoyed the ultimate relief. Maligned for so long, by so many, it brought him to this moment. On Thursday night — with a triple-double, no less, 26 points, 13 assists and 11 rebounds — LeBron James got his NBA title.
"You can't win," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said, speaking about James, "unless you win."
That's no longer an issue.
The man who was called heartless, callous, narcissistic, cowardly and selfish — and that was just in one scorned, angry letter from Dan Gilbert, the man who used to pay him to play for the Cleveland Cavaliers — will forever be called something else.
He's a champion.
"When he gets involved in something, business, basketball, he puts everything he has into it," longtime associate Maverick Carter said. "And this year, during the playoffs, he took it up another notch. He dedicated himself even more. I don't think he's any more dedicated than he was last year, but he found ways this year to channel it better, to limit his distractions and it raised his focus."
It raised the city of Miami, and raised the Heat back to the mountaintop as well.
And next fall, James will be there when they raise a second championship banner.
"He's one of a kind," Heat forward Shane Battier said. "One of a kind."
Vilified for both exercising his right to leave Cleveland and for the manner in which he announced the move, James came to Miami for this very thing. It took two years — one more than many people expected. The change of address didn't come with a change in stature. He remains one of the world's most polarizing and best-paid athletes, with his annual income recently estimated by Forbes to be $53 million.
But apparently, when it comes to James, enormous money and fame is not enough to satisfy everyone. A guy who is already a lock for the Hall of Fame — and might only be halfway or so through his career — needed a championship as validation.
Fairly or unfairly, that was the deal. And that title is now his.
"Perceptions better change, OK?" Heat forward Mike Miller said before Game 5. "You would be looking at a three-time MVP and a world champion. There's a very, very, very, very, very short list of those. A very short list. The way I've seen him improve in just the two years I've been around him, I've seen the maturation the whole time, and it's a scary thought because it's not going to stop. It's a freight train right now."
James is 27 years old. Michael Jordan was 28 when he won the first of his six championships.
Which raises one question that might just scare a few people around the NBA: Could this just be the start of what James is going to accomplish?
"I see LeBron James," Heat guard Dwyane Wade said. "I see the best and most dominant player in the game."
Most talked-about as well.
He regretted lashing out at a question about critics posed not long after last season's finals ended, one where he answered by saying "I'm going to continue to live the way I want to live and continue to do the things I want to do." That criticism was deserved. But some is just silly. He even takes heat for his hairline.
With James, nothing is off-limits for critiquing.
"He's been through a hell of a lot these past two years, and that makes you stronger," Heat forward Chris Bosh said. "Just the fact that he can just come out and play and show his strength, his strength of mind, his will to win, I think that's just really important for everybody else to see, not only us but everybody in the stands and watching on TV how much a person can really have some perseverance and really grow as their career goes on."
There is no in-between with James, it seems. Fans either love him or hate him. They love his ability. They hate that he left Cleveland. They love the staggering statistics. They hate the phrase "take my talents." He might be more criticized than any athlete in American pro sports today, and that's even without some huge glaring incident of wrongdoing on his resume.
It took time for the Heat to get used to that element of the James world.
"It's different than anything I've been around, there's no question about that," said Spoelstra, who, it bears noting, has spent the vast majority of his adult life around another lightning-rod personality in Pat Riley. "It's unfortunate that somebody who has the qualities that he has would be critiqued as negatively as he's been because he embodies so many of the things that you would want from a professional athlete.
"He's never been in trouble," Spoelstra added. "He's a team guy. He's a pass-first guy. He's a scorer, he's a defender, a two-way player, he's a great teammate. He's honored all of his contracts and he has a dream that he's been trying to chase but he's been doing it within a team concept."
The mouthpiece he wore throughout these playoffs said "XVI" — the Roman numerals for 16, how many postseason wins it takes to win an NBA championship. The towels that the Heat handed out Thursday night said the same thing, both a reminder of the goal and a tribute to what James flashed every time he opened his mouth on the court in these past four series.
XVI wins later, the mission is complete.
"It's a dream that he's had since I've known him, to be in the NBA and be a champion," his longtime friend Randy Mims said.
James' successes are celebrated. His failures might be more celebrated.
When the Heat lost last year's finals to the Dallas Mavericks, all the blame went James' way, and with good reason. He averaged three points in fourth quarters of those six games. The most common complaint, one that James acknowledges is true, is that he didn't make enough plays in the biggest moments. He managed only eight points in the loss that turned the series around and spun it in the Mavericks' favor.
"Old Lesson for all," Gilbert tweeted a few minutes after Dallas won the championship in Miami. "There are NO SHORTCUTS. NONE."
Gilbert didn't mention James by name in the tweet — or in his letter that came out shortly after The Decision. He didn't have to, either.
The Heat are understandably biased when it comes to perceptions about James. Some of Miami's competitors are as well.
"He does the right thing," Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "When he makes the right pass and the guy misses the shot, he's criticized. When he forces a shot in a double team, he's criticized. It's the way it is for him, for whatever reason. He's competitive as heck. He's one of the most powerful players to ever play the game. And maybe it isn't enough. I don't know."
Rivers said he thinks only one athlete might be able to relate to what James has to deal with — Tiger Woods.
"Tiger over the last two or three years," Rivers said. "Other than that, no one. No athlete that I can ever remember being under the scrutiny — definitely in basketball. I've never seen anyone under the scrutiny that LeBron James is under."
So in these playoffs, instead of trying to defeat the scrutiny or use it as fuel, James tried to ignore it as much as he could.
He turned his phones off. Literally, off. And they stayed off. When the NBA tried to send word that he won the MVP award, James wasn't reachable. The message eventually got to Mims, who delivered the news.
"I can't remember being as nervous with a message," Mims said.
No phone calls. No tweeting. He didn't watch much television. Instead of reading articles about himself or the playoffs, he was reading books, something that became part of his pregame ritual. He would sit at his locker, usually with headphones on, pregame snack of a meal-replacement bar next to him, and flip through a few pages. ("It slows my mind down," James said.)
"He's just focused, you know, just like the rest of this team," Wade said. "He has a goal, and he wants to reach that goal, and he doesn't want nothing to stand in his way, and he doesn't want himself to stand in his way. He wants to make sure once you leave the game or you leave the series, you can say, I gave it my all. I don't know if we all could have said that last season."
That's why James made a slew of changes after the 2011 finals.
He worked out harder. He said he was getting rid of the anger that he played with last season, something he did in an effort to prove people wrong. This year, he said he played with joy again — and figured out that the best way to win wasn't to prove detractors wrong, but to pro"
"He's made some changes, obviously, to his game and more importantly, to his approach, how he views it and how he prepares for a game," Heat forward Juwan Howard said. "I commend him for some of the decisions that he made, looking at himself in the mirror and saying 'I want to make some changes.' A lot of players won't do that. Obviously, it shows he's very bright and that he's humble. He wants to get better."
But first, he had to address not being happy.
His family — then-girlfriend, now-fiancee Savannah Brinson, and the couple's two sons — spent long stretches of last season in Ohio. James confided to those in his close circle last year that at times he felt isolated. When Brinson and their kids moved to Miami full-time, things changed in a hurry. James asked Brinson to marry him. The nuptials are next summer.
Why then? Well, this summer will be a little busy, for starters. There's the Olympics. Another close friend's wedding. Some off-court business responsibilities. Training camp will be here soon enough. Oh, and first, a parade to celebrate the world champions.
"Life is the best experience you can get," Mims said. "That's what's basically happened with him that whole year, from leaving Cleveland to coming here to being here basically alone for that year. And then you see things change. His family came here. He got engaged. He learned more about the team, became more of a leader."
James' free-agent courtship officially lasted about a week, The Decision went on for an hour, and the words that changed so many aspects of James' life that night took only four seconds to say that night.
"I'm going to take my talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat," James said, that unforgettable phrase.
He'll forever be linked to what he said in that infamous welcome party-turned-rock concert — which despite countless insistence to the contrary was arranged not for him, but for Wade and with the goal of topping how the organization celebrated Shaquille O'Neal's arrival in 2004. And the most-replayed moment from that night was when James started peeling off how many championships he would hope to win in Miami.
"Not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven," James said that night, as Wade and Bosh nodded in the seats next to him.
No, he doesn't have any of those yet.
However, at long last, he does have one.
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